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Cop trades bulletproof vest for priestly vestments

  • Written by Eric Szatkowski, Special to your Catholic Herald
  • Category: Local

“One day I received an emergency call and was running lights and siren to it. En route to the call, the phone in my patrol car rang – it was Alaska calling,” he said.

Gallagher answered, “Officer Gallagher.” It was not his dispatcher, but a priest from Haines, Alaska. “Hi, Steve. What is that screaming in the background?”

Gallagher responded politely but in a Joe-Friday-firmly manner, “It’s my siren and I’m in a situation right now; call me back in 20 minutes.”
Author, priest share law enforcement roots

The writer of this article, Eric Szatkowski, is a police officer, a special agent with the Wisconsin Department of Justice. He is assigned to the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Now-Fr. Gallagher introduced himself to Szatkowski in January 2010, after Szatkowski gave a presentation on the dark side of digital technology to seminarians and faculty at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Franklin.

Szatkowski was fascinated to hear about Gallagher’s faith journey from police officer to the priesthood. The law enforcement bond between Gallagher and Szatkowski grew into a friendship, nurtured by their Catholic faith. Szatkowski attended Fr. Gallagher’s ordination and Mass of Thanksgiving in Olympia, Wash.

Fr. Gallagher and Szatkowski share a desire to bring police officers closer to Christ, to encourage them to rely on their faith as a source of strength while they protect and serve their communities.

Szatkowski and his family are parishioners of the Basilica of St. Josaphat, Milwaukee, where he is a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion to the homebound.

Szatkowski is working toward a master’s in Christian doctrine degree from Marquette University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communications from UW-Milwaukee in 1983, and was a television news reporter and producer for seven years before becoming a police officer.


The clergyman did as the cop requested, and they discussed Gallagher’s inquiry about replacing his bulletproof vest with the liturgical vestments of ordained life. Thus began the final leg of Gallagher’s response to the most important call of his life – the Catholic priesthood.

Four years in Hales Corners

Fast forward to the weekend of Divine Mercy Sunday, 2011 – also the weekend of the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Gallagher’s faith journey, which began in the Pacific Northwest, was also being followed closely in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He had spent the last four years at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Franklin, earning his master’s of divinity degree. As part of his formation, he spent three months in fall 2010 as a deacon at St. Jerome Parish, Oconomowoc. 

In Fr. Gallagher’s words, “nothing short of a miracle” took place on Saturday, April 30, 2011, when he was ordained a priest by Bishop Edward J. Burns for the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska – where he will be one of nine priests ministering in a geographic area the size of Florida. The ordination and his Mass of Thanksgiving the next day were celebrated at St. Michael Parish, Olympia, Wash., with Catholics from the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, Milwaukee and Oconomowoc present. St. Michael was chosen by Fr. Gallagher, in part, because of Molly. She attended the parish grade school for nine years, and received her first Communion through the parish.

How can a priest be a dad?

Molly, his 22-year-old daughter, was front and center, along with Fr. Gallagher’s 90-year-old mother, Mary Helen.

A daughter? How can a Roman Catholic priest have a daughter?
 
Molly, a junior at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, hears that question often.
 
“They ask questions like, ‘Is your mom still alive? How are you here?’ I like that one,” she said.

Molly is part of a small fraternity of Catholics whose biological fathers are priests in the Roman Catholic Church, and she is overjoyed about it.
 
The marriage of Gallagher and Molly’s mom ended with a civil divorce in 1994. Gallagher requested and received an annulment from the Catholic Church. The annulment was granted because the church had determined that the Gallaghers’ marriage was not sacramental.

According to Fr. Knoebel, vice rector at Sacred Heart, it’s not uncommon for seminarians at Sacred Heart to have been married and divorced, however, “They are not even considered as possible students unless they request and are granted an annulment.”

Sacred Heart, known nationwide for its program for second-career candidates for the priesthood, also has older seminarians who are widowers or men who have never been married, noted Fr. Knoebel.Gallagher-C-05-12-11Newly appointed Bishop of Juneau, Edward J. Burns, center, anoints the hands of Fr. Steve Gallagher during his ordination Mass on Saturday, April 30 at St. Michael Church in Olympia, Wash. (Submitted photo courtesy Larry Boatright)
 
First call came during elementary school

The annulment process took about a year, and at the time, Gallagher had no idea that a divorced man could become a priest. Many years later, a priest told him during confession — something that opened the door for Gallagher to pursue a dream he first dreamt in 1962.

The first whisper of the call to the priesthood came when Gallagher was in elementary school on a religious retreat in his hometown of Port Angeles, Wash. Gallagher spent four years at a high school run by the Benedictines of St. Martin’s. The call still remained unanswered after graduation in 1971.

He tried a variety of jobs over the next several years, including tug boat worker, logger and finally a police officer in Port Angeles, where he stayed for nearly 10 years. The whispers of the call, however, started getting louder, and he went back to St. Martin’s Abbey. Gallagher became a novice monk, but after 18 months of discernment, opted instead for roll call at the Olympia Police Department.
 
Fr. Gallagher said his faith journey was much like his days as a traffic cop.
 
“Like other police officers all over the world, we do not like to direct traffic. We know how hard it is to get someone’s attention and make them go in a direction other than the one they have chosen. Imagine how much harder it was for God to give direction to me – not because I didn’t want to go in the direction he had chosen – but because I thought I was driving, “ he said.

His next detour was the longest. For 21 years, Gallagher protected and served the citizens of Olympia, in spite of a bout with cancer.

‘Cutting edge police officer’ connects with people

His former partner and longtime friend, Police Chief Jim Pryde of Gladstone, Ore., is proud of his friend’s accomplishments.
 
“I know his heart and his gifts. Steve was a cutting edge police officer, meaning he understood the importance of relationships and connecting with people,” Pryde said.

Gallagher’s personnel file offers evidence of his compassionate nature. For example, the mother of a child seriously injured in a bicycle-car accident wrote, “What particularly struck me was that when Steve walked into the emergency room and realized I was (the boy’s) mother, he fixed his gaze upon me and really searched for signs of peace or troubling in me, and gently, yet with a firm sense that he could handle my answer no matter how I responded…. I was amazed at his presence of mind, empathy, and compassion….”

Cited as ‘Officer of the Year’

In 1992, Gallagher was honored as the Olympia Officer of the Year, particularly for his work with children. His chief of police cited him for outstanding service in Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), noting he also “volunteered his off-duty time to help troubled kids and their families deal with the loss of loved ones, sexual/physical abuse, and anger control.”

One of Fr. Gallagher’s former classmates, a seminarian for the Salvatorian order, Michael Hopper, said, “He’s always been protecting and serving people. First as a police officer, now he’s taking it to the next level.”
 
Hopper also noted that seminarians could guess what Gallagher did in his former career, even if Gallagher never said a word about it. Hopper explained that Gallagher often put his cop skills to work at the seminary itself, making sure doors were locked and the building was secure, or intervening as a peacemaker if students got into a heated dispute.

Milwaukee area resident Trish Szalacinski and a friend drove more than 2,000 miles to witness Fr. Gallagher’s ordination. As receptionist at Sacred Heart for three years, she got to know him through his gregarious personality and not-so-subtle sense of humor.

“There were many times when I was on the phone, trying to be professional, and Steve would come up to me and make silly faces to try to get me to laugh,” she said.

Szalacinski said that sense of humor will complement Gallagher’s experience as a police officer.
 
“He’s seen the world for what it is,” she said. “He’ll make a wonderful priest taking care of people on all sides of the flock.”

Special place in heart for men, women in blue

With his appointment as associate pastor at Holy Name Parish, Ketchikan, Alaska, Fr. Gallagher has completed the police-to-priest transition. Even though his police work is behind him, he has a place in his heart for his brothers and sisters in blue. He’s hoping that his faith journey might be an inspiration to other officers to deepen their relationships with Jesus Christ.
 
Fr. Gallagher knows that while there are other cops who have made the same transition he did, the vast majority of Catholic lawmen will not go from getting confessions of suspects to hearing confessions of sinners. Nevertheless, he reminds all Catholic cops, whether on the job or retired, of the importance of using spiritual weapons of prayer and receiving the sacraments to complement their calling to protect and serve.
 
Fr. Gallagher’s ready to help. He said for those with questions or who want to see how they can “Catholic-up” in their law enforcement lives, he can be reached at [email protected]

“Stay connected or re-connect to your faith,” he said. “There’s a lot of evil out there that cops have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and we’ve got the best partner to team up with. When the Lord says, ‘Come, follow me,’ there is no desperation; it is simply hope. Be not afraid.”

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